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Playwright Richard Byrne announced on his blog this week that WSC Avant Bard, the Washington area’s most pun-tastic theater company, will stage a reading of his new play Nero/Pseudo at Artisphere on May 30. While this one-night-only event will be a reading rather than a full production, it will feature live music performed by celebrated punk-turned-“insurgent country” musician Jon Langford and his frequent collaborator Jim Elkington.
Langford is an original member of the still-active art-punk group The Mekons, as well as Skull Orchard (in which he plays with Elkington), the Waco Brothers, the Three Johns, and other Chicago-based outfits too numerous to list. Langford is also a writer and artist who has made hundred of protraits of famous musicians. (You can see his portrait of Buddy Guy hanging outside of the Birchmere’s music hall.)
Byrne (a former Washington City Paper staffer) says he and Langford have known each other since “the late ’80s or early ’90s,” when Byrne was a music writer for St. Louis’ Riverfront Times. In January 2011, Byrne flew to Chicago, where the Welsh-born Langford has lived since 1992, to persuade him to write music for the song lyrics Byrne had written into the script. “He was my first choice,” Byrne says.
Nero/Pseudo is about the first of several men who impersonated the notorious Roman emperor Nero Claudius Caesar following his suicide in 68 A.D. The imposter pulled off his charade not only via his Neroesque facial features, but through his ability to mimic Nero’s style when singing and playing the lyre.
“I got more and more obsessed with Nero’s poem about the fall of Troy,” Byrne says. “Only three lines of it have survived the centuries. They’re not even very interesting lines. I saw an opportunity as a playwright…The piece starting edging into glam-rockist territory.”
Though no one would apply the adjective glam to any of the wildly prolific Langford’s songs, Byrne knew from Langford’s interviews that the glam rock of the late ’60s and early ’70s had been an early inspiration to him. “I think part of what sold him on it was that it was glam,” Byrne says. “It’s definitely not an alt-country thing. It’s working a different muscle.” Byrne said he heard nothing from the very busy Langford for several months until last August, when five complete songs arrived.
Nero’s attempts to curry public favor through his music (and of course through torture and sexual mutilation of those who offended him) were addressed in Arena Stage’s just-closed production of You, Nero.